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The Escape Artist

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Ronald Tackmann, right, with friends, circa 1973.  

Turn around and look. Slowly. I got a gun back here. Listen carefully. You’re going to see your wife and kids tonight. Nobody’s got to die. Driver, shut off the bus. I want you to let me out. You do anything stupid, I’m going to shoot your partner.

The guards looked at the gun. They did as Tackmann said. One guard removed his jacket and hat. Tackmann put them on. He locked the guards in the back of the bus with the other inmates and drove back to Manhattan. Over the walkie-talkies he heard reports that the bus was missing and pulled over near 118th Street, ready to run. He heard the other inmates clamoring, begging him to let them out. He opened the back door of the van to help them. Two cons, hoping to get their sentences reduced, jumped him. He was punched, tackled, and charged with his first escape attempt.

“That’s the one thing I never told anybody,” Tackmann says, recounting the story. “How did I get [the gun] on the bus? This is something you can’t stuff—you know, put it in your ass.”

I press him for the answer.

“Hey, Copperfield has tricks he don’t tell nobody, right?”

Within six months, Tackmann had made another gun. This one, at least in theory, was a significant advance. “Every time I got on a bus, the C.O.’s, they’d say, ‘Tack, you better fire a shot through the windshield next time or no one is going to believe you.’ So I thought, That’s a great idea!”

The trigger of his new weapon was a matchstick and striker. The gunpowder was graphite from pencil shavings and charcoal, and the barrels were made of aluminum from cans.

“Each barrel was tested,” Tackmann says. “But I never tested each barrel together. So when I fired the first shot, that ignited the second shot. I say, ‘Freeze, drop your guns.’ They say, ‘We ain’t dropping shit.’ ”

He ended up in Attica, where he became an obsessive gunsmith, something that did not endear him to the authorities. From a report in Attica shortly thereafter: “Officer Yavicoli came upon a package of Blend tobacco in Tackmann’s cell that didn’t feel right … Hidden in the package was a facsimile of a .25-cal. automatic pistol.” At Clinton Correctional: “Upon having the cell door opened, inmate Tackmann dove to the rear of his cell by the toilet … parts of a homemade handgun made from a bar of soap were found in the toilet.” A year later, Tackmann was disciplined for writing a letter in which he allegedly threatened to “start teaching everyone up here how to make five types of guns! And in two years this place will look like the OK Coral [sic]!”

“You know what’s faster than the speed of light?” Tackmann says. “Thought. Think about it. We can think about Mars and be there. You can travel anywhere with the mind.”

Locked down 23 hours a day, in accommodations known as the Box, he escaped into his own imagination. He was a kind of jailhouse Leonardo da Vinci. His primary medium was paint: oil, pastel, watercolor. When he didn’t have paint, he used dye from food. When he didn’t have brushes, he made them from his own hair. He also sculpted. He used soap and a homemade prison papier-mâché to craft masterpieces. (His formula: one slice of bread to four sheets of toilet paper, soak, wring, repeat—add salt if available.)

There were also countless inventions. He sketched blueprints for energy-efficient houses he might build for himself one day, and filled notebooks with esoteric instructions (“Growing Penicillium Molds”) and endless ideas for gimmicks (“Toilet Paper That Will Not Tear”) and get-rich-quick inventions: pizza on a stick, a one-man jet helicopter, a pocket-size survival tent, peanut butter and jelly in the same tube.

In the Box, Tackmann’s imagination moved in a thousand surprising directions. In notebooks, he scribbled down ideas (“How to Make a Ozone Generator”) and marginalia (“Note: the bikini first came out in Paris in 1946”). He sent some schematics (“How to Build a Kid’s Push Cart”) to a magazine called Backwoods Home that paid him a few dollars for the sketch. And to travel, he painted.

“I’ve been all around the world—in my paintings,” he says. “I could do an ocean scene, and I wouldn’t do another painting for like three weeks, just so I could put it on the shelf and go there. Hawaii. California. I never been there before. In my paintings I’m there.”

He painted the life he never had: an Indian woman on the banks of a river with a bow and arrow, or inside the Pyramids of Giza with three kittenish brunettes in G-strings. Tackmann painted them busty. He sketched their nipples hard. He painted their eyes looking at him, so he could be with them there in the Pyramids.


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